Acting on Your Beliefs, September 9, 2018, St. Paul’s, Vancouver
Is 35: 4-7a; Ps 146; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

“Happy are those whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD will reign forever. Praise the LORD!”

Prayer

“Because I said so, that’s why!”

I’m not sure who was more surprised by this phrase, my daughter or me. Despite all of her “whys?” and resistance to my demands, she had never heard that response from me before.  She was used to pestering and whining and sometimes crying and then, ultimately getting her own way. So to hear me angrily shout “because I said so, that’s why!” was surprising.

For me, I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth. How did my father get in there? What happened?

It’s not that I heard this phrase a lot growing up—I just never though that I would say it. I didn’t think about what I was going to say—I just…reacted. And this phrase from some unknown corner of my subconscious found its way to the surface.

I suspect that more than one of you have found yourself in similar situations—maybe with your own children or family members, maybe coworkers or neighbours. Out of nowhere, often when we are not functioning at our best, we behave or speak instinctively—and we’re not happy about the way we acted (or spoke). This reaction is not typical of our behaviour. It’s like an “instinctive response” comes from some animalistic part of ourselves that we have no control over.

I don’t think that’s quite what the epistle of James has in mind when it talks about how people are treated in the early church. The people that James is addressing are behaving inappropriately—but not in this gut-reaction kind of way that I’ve been talking about. They too are behaving inconsistently, but not inconsistent with their “normal” behaviour. Instead, they are behaving inconsistently with what they claim to believe—and James calls them out on it. “If a rich person and a poor person walk into your gatherings, he asks them, do you give the rich person the good seat and try to keep the poor person from coming in, or standing to wait? Do you play favourites with people, even in the church, privileging some while disadvantaging others?”

This is something that I know that I have been guilty of. I draw conclusions about people before I know them from the way they look or the way they speak. Even once I know people, I don’t treat them all exactly the same—some people get better treatment from me than others.

“This is not what you believe as Christians,” James reminds them. “How and why are you behaving this way? The Royal law according to scripture is ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Acting as judge over people and treating them differently from one another is not keeping this law.”

And sometimes it takes a reminder like this letter to get us to pay attention to what we are doing. Sometimes we need that wake-up call.

And this is what James is giving them. Wake-up people! Pay attention! How can you believe one thing and do another? And what good is it to pray for people who are hungry if you’re not going to do anything to help them? How is that acting in faith? Believing that is important to help others in need is not going to help you or them. Doing something about it will! Faith, by itself, if it has not works, is dead.

And sometimes we need to be reminded of that—because sometimes we behave in ways that are not consistent with what we believe. We need to pay attention to our behaviours—we need to check them for consistency.

And though that can be difficult, what is far more difficult is checking our “instinctive responses” for consistency. Those ways we react when we are not at our best—the instinctive actions or phrases that we use without thinking about them—we need to be aware of how our subconscious has been programmed—because those unconscious ideas will manifest in our lives in ways we aren’t ready for.

The idea of a “reptilian brain” has entered into the vernacular. This is the idea that the different parts of our brains evolved at different times when the needs were different. The reptilian brain, or “lizard brain” as it is sometimes called is the most primitive part of the brain. It is the part of the brain that deals with hunger, thirst, fight or flight responses, reproduction. It is where our instincts lie—the opposite part of the brain than that part which deals with higher-level thinking. This part of our brain would have been responsible for the survival and continuance of the species long before our brains had evolved to process things like philosophical thought—so the theory goes.

When we are in danger—when we are excessively tired, or hungry, or frightened—the reptilian brain takes over. You don’t rationalize with a grizzly bear. If you are dying of thirst, you’re not overly concerned about the microbe content of the water in the puddle you find.

And, likewise, (or maybe I’m just trying to justify myself here), when you are exhausted and haven’t had a proper night’s sleep in months and you are hungry and frustrated and trying to think about something important and you keep getting interrupted with “but why? But why?! BUT WHY?!!” you shouldn’t be surprised that the reptilian brain takes over. “Because I said so, that’s why!”

 

But we are not reptiles. We are not animals. We have been given the gift of the ability to ponder our actions. To consider the consequences of how we behave. And, perhaps most importantly, question whether or not this reptilian behaviour is an accurate representation of what we really believe; of who we truly are. As human beings created in the likeness of God, we have been granted the ability to change our minds—to grow into something beyond mere primates.

And so, now I move from justifying my own short-temperedness to trying to explain the behaviour of our Lord. He who was (and is) both fully God and fully man—and yet, was without sin.

And I feel the need to discuss Jesus’ behaviour because it is troubling. A woman comes to Jesus begging for his help—and he calls her (and her daughter) a racial slur. “Dogs.” This behaviour is not what we have come to expect from our Lord.

We are told that he went to the region of Tyre—an area where there were very few Jews (it might be that this was exactly what Jesus wanted, having so recently dealt with the negative reaction of the people in his hometown). We are told that he entered a house and didn’t want anyone to know he was there. And yet, the people would not leave him alone.

So in an unfamiliar land filled with unfamiliar people, Jesus would have been on edge. Our reptilian brain treats unfamiliar people and environments as hostile—a means of instinctive self-protection—until it learns better. Having found himself a safe place to rest in this foreign land, the house where Jesus was staying had an unwelcome intruder—a foreign (to him) woman that he didn’t know who refused to follow the customs of the area—a gentile speaking to a Jew without her husband or brother introducing her or speaking on her behalf. Jesus was accosted—and his human-reptilian brain took over. And he was probably surprised to hear himself spewing the words of his father (or his carpenter master, or his third-grade teacher) (and there are many phrases that we use today that convey something of the same message: “America first,” “Charity starts at home,” “Blood is thicker than water”. But Jesus’ was): “Let the children be fed first—it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Even if Jesus was not stunned himself at the words that were coming out of his mouth, the Syrophoenician woman calls him on it right away. “Even if I am ‘a dog’ as you say, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the children’s table.”

This woman bravely forced Jesus to contend with his own unconscious bias. Jesus had to recognize what he had internalized—the idea that he, the son of God, was sent for the “lost sheep of Israel”. Seeing this woman for who she was (a child of God) and recognizing not only her and her daughter’s pain, but also his own ability to do something about it changed him. He changed his mind. And Jesus came face to face with his own unconscious biases (—and we would all do well to confront and address our own, before they manifest in ugly ways).

Jesus recognized that his mission, that the love of God, was not limited—not to a people group, not to a territory, and not to a particular social behaviour. The love of God, the power of God, had descended on the earth (in the form of Jesus himself) and was available to all. The subconscious ideas that Jesus had been operating under the influence of had been exposed—and once he had the chance to examine them (at the prompting of the courageous Syrophoenician woman), he was able to replace those unhelpful ideas with the ideas of the God who saves:

“Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

And Jesus went on to do those things himself—he went on to do “all things well”—in the very next passage sighing as he looked up to heaven. Jesus loosened the man’s tongue and opened his ears—but it was his own eyes that had been opened to see and his ears that had been opened to hear—and remember what he knew all along to be true:

God is a God who saves—who saves everyone who calls on his name.

“Happy are those whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD will reign forever. Praise the LORD!”